FAMILIES ARE supposed to fight; the trick is never doing it in public.
Throughout the season the Miami Heat made every effort to appear to be a happy, harmonious brood while its problems simmered beneath the surface. A best-of-seven series against the seventh-seeded Chicago Bulls in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs gave the Heat occasion for some much-needed family therapy--even if Game 4's atmosphere lacked the intimacy of a private session. In place of drawn shades and desktop waterfalls were the cascading cheers of 22,361 United Center fans who, along with a television audience of millions more, watched as Miami's fragile psyche came apart under the national spotlight and brother turned against brother.
Gary Payton was the first to crack, chiding Dwyane Wade after his fellow guard had sent a pass bouncing off Payton's foot for a second-quarter turnover. Wade's response looked to be as acerbic as it was immediate. Their running dialogue continued through the Bulls' ensuing possession and into a second-quarter timeout with 38.9 seconds left. "Don't do that to me," Payton could be heard shouting at Wade inside the Heat huddle. "I'm not your [expletive] boy." Several of their teammates tried to ease tensions, forming a wall around each of the players, only to have their efforts undercut by Antoine Walker, who had taken up Wade's cause and could be observed lobbing further invective at Payton on Wade's behalf. It took Shaquille O'Neal (an expert instigator in his past life) to broker a proper stalemate, the Big Peacemaker putting his meaty arm around Payton as Miami headed to the locker room down 44-40 at the half, while Chicago natives Walker and Wade, trailing some 50 feet behind the pack, chatted softly between themselves. The Heat eventually regained its composure ( Miami rallied from 13 down to take an 83-82 lead with 2� minutes to play), but the Bulls pulled away again, eventually taking the game (93-87), evening the series (2-2) and growing ever more confident in their chances of upsetting a league powerhouse. "They're showing a little frustration out there," observed Chicago's Chris Duhon. "When you see that, it's definitely good for us."
Pat Riley clearly wanted no part of his team's squabbles. Never mind that it was he who had pushed to bring this bunch under the same roof. Entering this series, Riley's mind was on other family matters--specifically, the death of his 96-year-old mother, Mary, on the eve of Game 1. On the court the Heat seemed an extension of its coach's fragile mind-set: hurt (backup center Alonzo Mourning sat out the first two games with a calf injury) and emotional--perhaps no player more so than Udonis Haslem. Upset that a foul was not called after he had gotten tangled up with the Bulls' Andr�s Nocioni underneath the Miami basket, Haslem winged his mouthpiece in disgust toward referee Joe Crawford. Already giving chase the other way, Crawford whistled dead a potential fast break to T up Haslem twice, then punched the offending player out of the game the way his umpire brother might a base runner gunned down at the plate.
Haslem's outburst might have sunk Miami. Instead, it sparked a 7-0 run in the second quarter. And when an inspired Wade lit up the fourth, scoring 14 of his team-high 30 points, Miami pulled out a 111-106 victory at AmericanAirlines Arena. "I felt like we should've stole that game," the Bulls' Kirk Hinrich said afterward. "We were right there."
With Haslem drawing a one-game suspension, it was Jason Williams who left his mark on Game 2. He scored 17 of his 22 points (tying him for the team high with O'Neal) in the first half to push Miami past a 30-point night from Nocioni to a 115-108 win and 2-0 lead as the series traveled to Chicago. "It's not over," Hinrich huffed after the game. "They took care of their home court. Now we have to take care of ours."
Predictably, the Windy City setting only further inflamed the Heat's smoldering emotions. No sooner did they welcome Haslem back to the lineup in Game 3 than they waved goodbye to James Posey. With 3:15 left in the fourth and the Bulls up 100-85 and off to the races, Posey ran down and lowered his shoulder into a breaking Hinrich, who was nearly broken himself after being laid out in the paint. NBA lead disciplinarian Stu Jackson took note of the wreckage from his courtside seat and, after Posey was whistled for a flagrant and tossed from the game, slapped the Miami forward with a one-game suspension. Subsequent technicals on Haslem and Walker all but sealed the Heat's fate. Down Miami went, 109-90, under Hinrich's 22 and Nocioni's 19. "Our energy was great from the start," said Ben Gordon, who led the Bulls with 24 points in the victory. "It boosted our confidence."
But with Miami's Game 4 loss came a welcome catharsis. The bickering, the finger-pointing, all of it was finally out in the open. In that public purging came a renewed sense of purpose, one that inspired Miami to seemingly effortless victories in the next two games. Though the Heat would still have an occasional stumble, falling behind 55-50 in Game 5 while O'Neal nursed four fouls and Wade a bruised left hip, it would not again crumble under the weight of the moment--partly because Wade wouldn't allow it. After receiving a painkiller or, as Wade put it, "a little shot in the butt," in the locker room, the man they call Flash made a speedy return with 5:50 left in the third quarter to give the Heat a boost of his own, pouring in 15 of his 28 points (the last basket coming from beyond the arc with 4:00 left) as Miami rolled to victory, 92-78. Two days later O'Neal had 30 points and 20 rebounds in the clincher, and the Heat finished off Chicago in a 113-96 blowout and, with it, seemingly all that ailed the team.
"That was just something to fire up our team," said Payton, reflecting on his Game 4 spat with Wade. "It's sort of what Donovan McNabb and TO used to do." But unlike TO and McNabb, who let their differences derail their own championship ambitions, the Heat, it seemed, in its on-court embraces after besting the Bulls, had ultimately hugged its out.